Chukat Sermon 5779, July 12, 2019, Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ
Welcome to our newly created Congregation Beit Simcha sanctuary! Just a few days ago if you looked to the north you would have seen a row of tanning booths, with a neon sign over them that read “Tanning” in bright letters. Apparently, getting as much ultraviolet light—or is it infrared light?—was a high priority for people who came to Platinum Fitness. Thanks to Ken Goodman and his workmen who demolished those booths and removed them, which is what should happen to them these days, now that we know the true dangers of skin cancer and overexposure today. But it does bring up the question of light.
We recently passed the summer solstice, but we are still in a period of the year when sunrise is early and sunset late, long days of heat and especially, light. Light in Jewish tradition is associated, first and foremost, with God. The first words God speaks in the Torah are y’hi or, let there be light, and the opening section of Genesis is focused primarily on the distinctions and qualities of different manifestations of light: the lights of the day and the night, the various stars and the regularization of the distinction between light and darkness, light in its most primal form. Light becomes, in Breisheet, in Genesis, a symbol of God’s presence in the universe, God’s ordering of the energy of the world into the elements that create structure and purpose. As it says, God saw the light, and God saw that it was good.
There are many different words for light in Judaism: or, the all-purpose term; ziv, the divine emanation that comes from the Ein Sof, the mystical ideal of God, light energy without limitation; or Adonai, the glowing expression of God’s presence; and so on. Each aspect of God’s influence in the world can actually be expressed as a form of light. Light is not only central in Judaism; you could say that it as at the heart of the Jewish understanding of God, and that each element of Jewish tradition embraces a different illuminated expression of the divine presence. Light is good, and was created by God—but in a deeper sense, light is actually part of God. In a way, when we see light, we see God.
So this time of great light should be, in its own way, a season of particular holiness. These very long summer days lend themselves to a certain slowness, and that should give each of us the chance to appreciate just what we have, and what light means in our own lives.
Here in Tucson we are particular experts on the subject of light. Experiencing well over three hundred twenty sunny days a year—the most of any American city—we are likely to begin to take light for granted. We even begin to object to it: another sunny day in the desert. What else is new? Perhaps it will rain soon, we certainly need it!
And yet these long days of summer have more meaning than that, for light is a gift. Poet Michael Leunig writes beautifully of how light fills this season:
We welcome summer and the glorious blessing of light.
We are rich with light; we are loved by the sun.
Let us empty our hearts into the brilliance.
Let us pour our darkness into the glorious, forgiving light.
For this loving abundance let us give thanks and offer our joy.
(Micheal Leunig, The Prayer Tree)
Now the flip side of these days of endless summer is that, in fact, we are already on the downside. June 21st marked the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. So even though the change is imperceptible, the truth is that days are actually getting shorter now. That is, we are headed down the slope towards the dark days of December… and there’s nothing to slow or stop the slide for the next six months. That’s right folks: we are rapidly moving from sun and light to darkness and shadow. It’s all downhill from here, nothing but growing darkness and diminished light to come.
Like so much of life, you see, it’s all in how you look at it… We are either enjoying the longest, brightest days of the year, or we are creeping, day by day, to that long dark night, our brief candle burning lower and lower. It’s not light that is increasing, but darkness; not sunshine but night that is reaching out to capture us.
So which is true?
Well, both of, course. But how you see this time of year depends very much on two things: context, and your own inclinations. It’s either very light or getting darker; both are true, and both are legitimate ways to see the world. But the results of adopting one view over the other can be very different indeed.
We have an example of that in this week’s parshah of Chukat. The start of this week’s Torah portion includes three disparate parts: the ritual of the red heifer, the parah adumah, the ashes of which formed the essential element used to cleanse the impurity of ritual contamination in Biblical times; second, the story of the death of Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron; and third, the brief, dramatic tale of Moses’ striking a rock to draw forth water, instead of speaking to it as God has commanded, forfeiting his chance to go into the Promised Land. The most powerful of these sections is this last one, describing the events of the waters of Meribah, where God oddly asks Moses to do something he has never before done in order to achieve a result he has gotten before by more direct means.
It’s a short, strange story. There are many unanswered questions in the narrative: how many times has Moses, at this stage of his career, gotten water to flow for the people by whacking a rock? Why does God ask him to talk to a rock instead of hit it? What symbolism is buried in this short story that has such long-standing consequences for Moses, the greatest leader of our people?
At the time this fateful event takes place Moses has finally brought the people of Israel to the very borders of Erets Yisrael, the Promised Land of Israel. He, and they, have just about made it. After 40 years of wandering and loss, our ancestors are almost there. It should be a great time for Moses. He has persevered and endured, brought his stubborn and rebellious flock mei’afeila l’orah, from darkness to light. Now he should feel great, and have reached a point where he can really enjoy, sit back and kvell about how they have nearly made it.
But instead of enjoying this moment in the sun, something goes wrong. Faced with yet another crisis, Moses responds not by simply doing the things that bring goodness and blessing—and most importantly, will demonstrate his faith and leadership. Instead, this time he acts out and smashes the rock. Rather than seeking to show the people that God is filled to overflowing with power and mercy, God will provide for all their needs, in spite of the fact that they have continually questioned God the Divine Source has always come through—this time Moses simply shouts at the people “Here it comes, you rebels!” and swings his trusty staff and whacks the rock, hard, twice.
God can’t leave Moses out on a limb here, so water actually does flow. But the die is cast: Moses can’t get into the Promised Land, and his act of serious rebellion marks him as a kind of tragic figure. Our greatest leader failing to lead. In other words, at a time of great light Moses sees only the growing darkness.
It’s interesting: it’s not as though Moses has been an unfailingly negative guy until now. On the contrary, throughout the complex narrative of the Israelites’ wanderings, Moses has been the one who saw the good in the people of Israel, who sought to save them from God’s negative—and accurate—view of their failings. But now, at the very gates of the Holy, Promised, Land, Moses own faith gives out. After 40 years of insisting the sun was shining, he now discovers it’s getting dark outside. Why?
I think the key to this paradox is found in the text. The word for rock in Hebrew is tzur. It’s a common enough word; but it is also used in a phrase that you may know, tzur Yisrael, the Rock of Israel, which is part of the Mi Chamocha prayer in the morning service. And in that context tzur means something else: it means God.
In other words, Moses striking out at this moment is not just Moses hitting instead of talking to a rock; it’s a very physical manifestation of a loss of faith. A loss of faith in the people of Israel; a loss of faith in his own leadership; and, most centrally, a loss of faith in God. Moses is striking out at God.
You can, of course, make excuses for Moses. His sister has just died. He is getting on in years. Everyone he has known, the whole of the old generation, is just about gone. It’s not easy serving the Jewish people for over 40 years.
But the heart of the matter is simple. Moses has had a failure of belief. He simply can’t bring himself to trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the One God who has consistently brought blessing and goodness—and light—to the people of Israel.
Faith is a strange concept, really. It is, at heart, the triumph of belief over reason. In Moses failure here we learn something simple, but powerful.
It is only this: that, at heart, light is God’s eternal gift to us. The ability to see and appreciate and celebrate light is a blessing that can help define us. We can, if we choose, embrace the light that comes, and understand it as an expression of the holiness that is everywhere in our world. And when we begin to do that, we find illumination, and embrace it, and make our lives holy as well. We do this by accepting God’s presence—by choosing not to strike the rock, not to deny the Tzur Yisrael, but to speak to it—that is, to talk to God, to pray, to argue, to sing, to worship.
For when we do that, we will surely feel God in our world.
The same thing is true for our own congregation, Beit Simcha: when we focus on what we can achieve and accomplish, we will find we can accomplish anything, and do so with joy and light.
In this season of great light, may we come to celebrate the goodness that is everywhere. And may we come to mark that goodness with our thoughts and our actions. For then we, too, will bring light.